This post is part of our #AliceClark100 Online Reading Group. In it Susan D. Amussen offers some reflections on the opening ‘Introductory’ chapter of The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century. Susan is a Professor of History at UC Merced, and tweets as @susandamussen. You can access the book here.
Susan D. Amussen
Those who have never read Alice Clark’s Working Life of Women might wonder why we would pay any attention to a work that is a hundred years old, and superseded by recent research on women. Yet anyone who works on the history of women, and particularly the history of women’s work, in early modern England owes a debt to Alice Clark’s work. It was reissued in 1982 with an introduction by Miranda Chaytor and Jane Lewis, and again in 1992 with an introduction by Amy Erickson. As Natalie Davis noted in a paper delivered at the Second Berkshire Conference in 1974, Clark consulted archives, differentiated among women, and had an overarching theory. For me, Clark’s work is one of the two or three books that have fundamentally shaped my understanding of early modern British history, even as I know more and more about the limitations of her work.
Clark’s ‘Introductory’ raises the key thesis of her work, that industrialization fundamentally changed women’s roles and experience; that women were better integrated into the economy under household and family systems of production than in industrial systems. She admitted how little she knew – her discussion of medieval women’s work “rests chiefly on conjecture” (p. 4); Tim Stretton has noted that her modern comparison was not the 18th century, but her own experience. As we will see over the coming months in this roundtable, Clark didn’t get it all right. But she got it enough right that it helps.
At the core of her argument is the notion that there was a massive change in women’s work in the seventeenth century: she noted the dramatic difference between Shakespeare’s heroine’s and Wycherly’s. That change, she argued, was the result of the shift from domestic and family industry – where most production took place in households – to capitalistic industry, where productive work was separated from the household unit, primarily performed by individual laborers. Historians today have a much more complex understanding of the relationship of theatre to society; we also know now that wage labor was more important than she thought early in the century. Finally, we recognize that the transition to what Clark called capitalist industry was more erratic than she thought.
What is critical is that she took the history of women and women’s work seriously. In the ‘Introductory’, you can see the echoes of the arguments she had faced: that women were “a static factor in social developments” was an “assumption” that had “no basis in fact” (p. 1). It’s astonishing and discouraging that every year I need remind my students this: that women have always worked, and that women not working is the historical anomaly.
Of course, reading Clark in 2019 there are things that stand out: I had forgotten the extent to which she embraced a romantic view of motherhood. So in arguing for a study of history, she discusses variations in “sexual and maternal instincts”. In some cases, she asserts, “sexual impulses are liable to perversion, it sometimes happens that the maternal instinct disappears altogether” (p. 1) Clark makes it clear that “the spiritual creation of the home and the physical creation of the child” are the “highest, most intense forms to which women’s productive energy is directed” (p. 4). The recognition of reproduction as a form of production anticipates later feminist arguments, while the notion of sexual perversion or maternal instinct seems problematic!
I still remember my excitement when I discovered Clark in the fall of 1976. Finding a book that linked work and women’s status and that engaged with a full range of women was a breath of fresh air, an indication that it would be possible to study ordinary women. Rereading Clark I am reminded of why I was so excited when I first read her. She linked the status of women to their economic roles. She provided a cogent explanation of change. Judith Bennett’s analysis of patriarchal equilibrium suggests that changes on the surface are not as substantially significant as Clark thought. The archival research of the last 40 years means that we have far more evidence – and as a result a far more complicated story – than Clark imagined. Our theoretical frames have shifted. But Clark’s central argument – that where women work and who they work for matters – still resonates.
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 Natalie Davis, ‘”Women’s History” in Transition: The European Case’, Feminist Studies 3: 3/4(1976) 83-103